Second career: Nowthen woodcarver Bill Jaeger wins national award for folk art

“Herman and Ruth” was Bill Jaeger’s winning entrant in a national show for Norwegian art, the National Exhibition of Folk Art, at Vesterheim museum in Iowa.

by Bruce Strand, Arts editor

Bill Jaeger settled into a pleasant second career as woodcarver after retiring from his “day job” a decade ago.

And the rural Nowthen resident picked up a significant honor as a carver this summer.
Jaeger’s caricature of a grandma and grandpa earned “Best in Show” for carving at a national show at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa.

Bill Jaeger, former draftsman, carves at his rural Nowthen home. (Photo by Bruce Strand)

The National Exhibition of Folk Art from June 7 through July 28 had contests in several artistic categories. To qualify to enter, the various artists must earn points in a series of exhibitions in lower-level competitions at Vesterheim.

“So, this was for the best of the best, you could say,” noted Jaeger, 60, about his winning piece that quickly sold. “It took me four years. For some people it took 20 years.”

He made the carving with his own Swedish grandmother and German grandfather in mind, naming it “Herman and Ruth” after them.

Jaeger, a native of Columbia Heights, has resided for 27 years in a secluded home southeast of Nowthen, heated by wood he cuts himself from forest surrounding the house. It’s just him, his dog, his cutting tools and hunting and fishing gear. No computer, no cell phone has been needed.

He was a draftsman for a refrigerator company in Minneapolis until retiring at 50. “They were switching to the CAD, and I’m just not a computer person. Besides, those things made too many mistakes,” Jaeger said.

He had started dabbling in woodcarving at 40, taking classes and reading books until he felt ready, and turned that hobby into a profession fairly smoothly. For 10 years, he has been creating and selling woodcarvings, along with teaching the craft at the Swedish American Institute in Minneapolis. He has six classes per week now.

A row of Bill Jaeger’s woodcarvings.

 

“Scandinavian figure carving is what I do,” said Jaeger. “That caricature style is pretty simple. It was started years ago in Norway by farmers and loggers for something to do on those long winter nights when they only had a couple hours of daylight.”

Those farmers and loggers, along with Norwegians of all walks of life, are what’s celebrated at Vesterheim, named after the term the earliest settlers used when they wrote to folks in the old country about their “western home.”

Vesterheim is billed as the largest museum in the United States dedicated to a single ethnic group. It’s also a cultural center dedicated to preserving Norwegian traditions.

Vesterheim’s tradition of celebrating art began in 1967 with a exhibit of rosemaling (Norwegian decorative painting). The center is renowned for its rosemaling contests, and over the years they have added weaving, woodworking and knife-making.

The artist’s hands at work.

“Some of the best practitioners of these traditional Norwegian arts enter the exhibition, which attracts national attention,” said Laurann Gilbertson, Vesterheim’s chief curator. “This year’s exhibition included over 150 pieces of beautiful contemporary folk art.”

Jaeger, as a half-Swede himself, points out that the Swedish style of woodcarving is very close to that of their Norwegian next-door neighbors. After turning out pieces like “Herman and Ruth” for several years, he reports he’s “pretty much accepted” by the Norwegians.

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